An Interview with Joshua Dunn: What Happened with Amendment 66?

Nov 8, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Joshua Dunn is currently Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In this interview, he discusses some recent events in Colorado and school finance.

1) Professor Dunn first tell us a bit about yourself, your education, experience and expertise.

I’m an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. I’ve taught here since 2004. Most of my research has focused on the courts and education. I became interested in the area during graduate school when a professor of mine, Martha Derthick, asked me to research Missouri v. Jenkins for a class project. I found the case so compelling that I ended up writing a dissertation and later a book, Complex Justice<>, on it. The case lasted roughly from the late 1970s to the early 2000s.

For those who aren’t familiar with Missouri v. Jenkins it was officially a desegregation case but it evolved into a school improvement case. The federal district court judge, Russell Clark, mandated massive tax increases to pay for a complete overhaul of the Kansas City, Missouri School System (KCMSD). He ended up spending over $2 billion and for several years the KCMSD had the highest per-pupil expenditures in the country. The goal of his remedial plan was to improve student achievement and draw white students from the suburbs. It failed to do either. I was interested in explaining both failures. It seemed shocking that such a dramatic exercise of judicial power and huge increase of resources could actually make things worse.

That project has led me to study other related areas such as school finance litigation. School finance litigation shares some similarities with Missouri v. Jenkins but also has some important differences. The goal of school finance litigation is to increase spending to improve student achievement. However, since San Antonio v. Rodriguez, school finance litigation has been confined to state courts. Thus the political dynamics are different. Instead of having superior federal courts dictating policy to inferior state and local governments, you have a co-equal branch of government telling another co-equal branch what to do (assuming the litigation is successful). That makes it much more difficult, in general, for state courts to actual see their commands implemented.

I also co-author, with Martha Derthick, a quarterly column on the courts and education for Education Next. My current research projects have moved away to some degree from my prior work. I’m writing two books. One book, Who Governs in God’s City?, is on politics in Colorado Springs. Even though it’s broader analysis of the city’s politics it was prompted by disputes over education policy in the city so education will be a central part of the study. A second is on the debate over intellectual diversity in higher education called The Elephant in the Classroom. I’m co-authoring it with Jon Shields of Claremont McKenna College.

2) Now Amendment 66 has recently been sorely defeated. What are the initial implications?

The obvious implications are that we’re left with our current system of school funding and that Coloradans don’t like tax increases. Even though Colorado has been trending purple to blue in recent elections, there seems to be bipartisan opposition to tax increases. I like to say that tax increases are guilty until proven innocent in Colorado. To meet that burden of proof you have to have significant bipartisan support. The last statewide tax increase came in 2005 and had the support of Bill Owens who was a Republican and governor from 1999-2007. He had conservative credibility in spades and his support along with other conservatives allowed that tax increase to pass, but just barely at 52 percent.

Another implication is that the Democratic leadership in Denver should be afraid about next year’s elections. It’s pretty clear that they misread their mandate and that forcing things through the legislature on a party-line vote was a mistake. The comparison to Obamacare is I think apt.

If you’re going to push major tax increases and significant gun control legislation, you only do so with some support from the other party. You could take Todd Purdum’s recent article for Politico, “Obama’s Price of Victory<>,” change a few words here and there and it would explain what’s happened in Colorado.

Now the supporters of Amendment 66 like to say that they actually did have bipartisan support and worked very hard over several years to bring in multiple stakeholders from across the political spectrum. But by the time Amendment 66 was passed it was purely a Democratic measure. That’s why Senate Bill 213, which 66 was attached to, passed on a straight party-line vote. I actually attended one of the initial roll outs of what became Amendment 66 in the spring of 2012. At that event there were a lot of people congratulating themselves on their broadmindedness and how they had reached a “grand bargain” across the political divide.

They alleged that they had agreed to increase spending along with other reforms. But they didn’t say what those reforms were and those substantial reforms never materialized. Most of us had trouble figuring out what the bargain was. The reforms that they did end up putting in 213 such as greater transparency could have been accomplished without 66. Instead the thrust was more spending. So it was no surprise that they never got meaningful support from conservatives or Republicans or for that matter unaffiliated moderates. Based on the results on Tuesday you also have to assume that many Democrats opposed it too.

In the near term I don’t think there are significant educational ramifications from 66’s failure. Based on most measures our schools do well in Colorado. That is partly because we have a highly educated population. But that points to the fact that variables other than school spending influence educational outcomes. Well-educated parents tend to do things that make sure their children succeed. And if our schools were in the dire straights that 66 supporters said, it would not have been defeated by a 2-1 margin.

The funding levels for our schools were not that low to begin with. I think the more accurate measures indicate that we are right in the middle nationally when it comes to spending.

Also Senate Bill 213 would have mandated funding for pre-K and full-day kindergarten. That means that much of the revenue raised by 66 would have been absorbed by these new programs. Since the evidence for the value of pre-K is at best shaky, I think that would have amounted to a huge misallocation of resources. Thus, while the 66 campaign ran gauzy commercials which talked about adding art and gym and reducing class sizes it’s not clear what would have been left after pre-k and full-day kindergarten took their share of the money.

Of course, we do have districts with troubled schools such as those in Denver. But in the long run I think it’s far more significant that reform candidates were elected to the Denver School Board than that 66 was defeated.

3) In your mind are there long term ramifications and repercussions?

There are long term ramifications but I think 66 would have actually made those worse. They are symptoms of a more fundamental problem. We have something in our constitution called the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). That requires public approval of any new tax increase—hence Amendment 66—and it limits the growth of government spending to inflation plus population growth. In a few years there are additional “TABOR Limits” on revenue collection that will kick in. We also have property tax limits under our “Gallagher Amendment.” But we also have Amendment 23 which requires that k-12 spending increase by inflation each year. These provisions are on a collision course. Amendment 66 would have replaced Amendment 23.

However, I think 66 would not have been an improvement. 66 and 213 would have required that at least 43 percent of tax revenues be spent on education. That would be worse than our current situation. We’ve had terrible natural disasters the last two years in Colorado. Under 66 the legislature could not have reallocated funds to fire mitigation or rebuilding flooded out roads if it would have cut into education funding. As well increasing funding in any other area would require increasing spending on education since it would have to be at least 43 percent.

As well, 66 and 213 lock you into spending 43 percent even if changes in educational delivery create efficiencies that reduce how much we need to spend on education. For instance, hybrid brick-and-mortar and online programs are only likely to increase in popularity and could very well mean that we get better results at lower cost. But under 66 and 213 the legislature could not consider those changes when allocating funds.

That leads to the underlying problem: it’s far too easy to amend the Colorado Constitution. If I could make one change to our political system first reform I would make it more difficult to amend our constitution. These contradictory provisions show the dangers of direct democracy.

4) Supposedly Amendment 66 was going to create a world class education. Did anyone specify what a “world class education” was comprised of?

No. I think most voters were rightly confused about what specifically 66 would do to improve education. The commercials certainly never moved beyond vacuous generalities.

5) I find it odd that in a time period when there seems to be a significant rise in autism, and other exceptionalities, that the voters would reject additional funding—or was the money ear marked for sports or something else ?

Some of the money was earmarked for special education but most of it was not. I also never got the sense that parents of children in special education programs thought that those programs are underfunded. Under federal law districts are forbidden from considering cost when designing special education programs so those programs are fairly well protected. And the perception that special education is draining school budgets is at odds with what is really going on<>.

6) Now, in a strange odd, bizarre (at least to me) twist of fate—marijuana has been legalized and is apparently going to be taxed- bringing in future money perhaps for education . Am I off on this?

In 2012, Colorado voters approved Amendment 64 which legalized the recreational use of marijuana. This is another example of something that has no business being in a state constitution. I’m actually optimistic that legalization will work out well but I see no reason that these kinds of things should be decided at the constitutional level. Littering your constitution with so many amendments undermines the idea of constitutionalism and turns the constitution into just another piece of legislation.

That being said, 64 did not set taxes for the commercial sale of marijuana. It was left to the legislature to propose a tax and regulatory regime for the market. They came up with Proposition AA which established taxes, a 15 percent excise tax on the wholesale price and 10 percent sales tax on the retail price, for the commercial sale of recreational marijuana (they really should have come up with something better than AA for a marijuana tax). It passed by about the same margin that 66 failed. If the revenue projections are correct about half of the revenue raised by these taxes will end up going to school construction.

It is odd I suppose to raise money for schools off of drugs. But I don’t think that it’s that dissimilar from lotteries whose tickets are disproportionately consumed by those least able to afford them. Supporting education from marijuana taxes doesn’t seem any more immoral than that. In fact, it’s less so.

7) In your opinion, how good is education in the State of Colorado? And if you want, could you tell us how you voted and why?

I discussed above that I think we have pretty good schools overall in Colorado. You can probably gather my position on 66 based on my analysis. However, to be specific my biggest concerns were not about the taxes but about adding an even more harmful constraint on the legislature’s ability to balance the various needs of the state. Unfortunately that issue received almost no attention in the debate over 66. As a political scientist I guess I can’t shake the idea that how policies are made is often more important than the policies themselves.

8) What have I neglected to ask?

I think I’ve covered most things probably in more detail than you needed.

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